This beautiful and multi-layered novel explores the uncomfortable complexities of family life and the pain and difficulty of relinquishing the past.
The natural, understated elegance of Toronto-based author Dennis Bock's prose quickly becomes quite addictive. His narrator's conversational style contributes to a delicious feeling of intimacy, as though we're listening to a good friend.
A contemporary domestic drama, Going Home Again is a departure for Bock, whose previous fiction, such as The Ash Garden and The Communist's Daughter, have been more strongly rooted in actual events.
Charlie Bellerose is the 40-something owner-operator of an international chain of language schools catering to students. For the past 20-odd years, he has been living the good life in Spain with his family, but now finds himself at loose ends following his wife's affair and their separation.
Though it will mean leaving his daughter behind, he makes plans to return to his hometown of Toronto, seeing his newfound freedom as an opportunity to start up a school in Canada.
It will also mean reconnecting with his older and unpredictable brother Nate, which is cause for concern, especially since their last reunion proved disastrous.
"There had always been some fundamental confusion between us... an unending failure to imagine how the other saw and thought about the world that too often made things go sideways between us," Charlie says.
He senses, however -- perhaps hopes -- that Nate really has changed. He's now a successful sports and entertainment lawyer with two clever, energetic boys. The only fly in the ointment is Nate's wife, who has recently left him for another man, but as Charlie points out, their "dishearteningly similar" stories only serve to further bond the brothers.
Quickly settling into his new life, Charlie nevertheless struggles to stay connected with Ava, despite the distance between them. He is essentially living in two different worlds, in limbo.
He is further thrown off course by an unexpected meeting with his first love, Holly. He becomes obsessed with seeing her again, unable to shake the feeling that their chance meeting was somehow preordained.
But further contact with Holly only causes painful memories to resurface, namely the unexpected suicide of their mutual friend Miles during their college days, leaving Charlie haunted with regret.
As Charlie muses, "Wasn't that the greatest irony? That what you need to leave behind are things you're unable to abandon."
Meanwhile, Nate grows increasingly bitter over his wife's infidelity, which only intensifies when she moves for custody of their boys. "Sometimes I think I'd like to stick a fork in her eye," he says. Troubled by the intensifying violence of his brother's words, Charlie is still reluctant to find fault with Nate's behaviour, rationalizing that any man in his situation -- and he should know -- should not be judged for a little anger.
The horrific and ultimately surprising climax leads to Charlie's realization that "our loved ones were capable of far more than we were able to handle... there were conflicting worlds within us all, and those worlds were ready and willing to defy us at the worst possible moment."
Bock's novel may seem at first to be a cautionary tale, but it's more than that. Charlie, Bock is an everyman trying to make sense of the challenges and mysteries of life. Dragged down by a painful past, and caught up in extraordinary circumstances in the present, he faces an uncertain future.
We all have people and events in our past we'd rather forget, yet there are always things worth holding onto. The trick is learning to tell the difference.
Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.